178 Comments
Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

To first order, the same methods are used to search for asteroids and comets, and the government has funded efforts to find both for many years. The next big advance in our ability to detect such objects will come from Rubin Observatory, which is under construction and will begin operations in a few years. Otherwise, if one wishes special protection against comet impacts, one would need to develop missions to divert a comet and have them ready to launch on only a few months notice, which would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars. So the question is whether one can justify spending that amount of money for a threat that happens once every ~20 million years.

A problem with Don't Look Up is that its depiction of the response of astronomers, journalists, and politicians is completely unrealistic, whereas satire should be based on some elements of truth. For instance, if an astronomer detected a new comet (including one on a collision course), they would post their measurements in a public database, and within weeks, other astronomers would could confirm its orbit. And if it indeed was a threat to Earth, every major astronomical organization would issue press releases about it and publicly/privately exhort government officials to take necessary steps to deal with it. Also, it's very unlikely that any government official could keep the existence of a dangerous comet a secret since multiple surveys can detect comets, many of those data are publicly available, and few, if any, astronomers would go along with an effort to keep it a secret.

I think that the movie also has the reaction of media backwards. In the movie, the media underplays the danger from the comet, whereas in reality, both astronomers and journalists have a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize scientific discoveries/threats. Any time a journalist gets a whiff of a study or discovery related to aliens, dangerous asteroids, etc., they jump on it. A more realistic setup for the movie would be a world in which there have been frequent media stories of dangerous comets/asteroids for many years that turned out to be false alarms, so when a real threat is discovered, the public doesn't believe it.

Also, the satire for a movie like this would be more realistic and relevant to current events if the main obstacle in thwarting the comet is an FDA-like regulatory review.

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Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

More realistic would be the BASH mission going up first while NASA gets stuck in regulatory review. The BASH mission partially succeeds and now there are two 5-km rocks barreling down on us instead of one 9-km rock. The NASA mission finally goes off, but is only capable of diverting one rock, so we get hit by the other one and then "only" 7 billion people die.

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founding

However it is an appropriate depiction of the media response to COVID in January and February 2020.

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founding

I agree with you mostly, except on the "is it aliens?" front, where there has been quite a lot of news on the UFO / UAP front that, while getting SOME coverage in big outlets, still mostly seems underwhelming when you consider what government whistle blowers, congressional committee members, and others have all backstopped in regards to those reports and stories...but perhaps this is the ONLY topic where that skepticism wins out....

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I was reading an interesting article that I can't seem to find at the moment. It talked about the public's reaction to there being aliens. My thought is that Star Trek and Star Wars and ET and on and on have conditioned the public to accept it. If news broke that 8% of the starts in the Milky Way have habitable planets and 1% of the stars are home to intelligent species and they used warp drives or whatever to get around the public would be like - Yeh, that makes sense. It certainly makes more sense than it all being barren rocks and balls of gas and plasma.

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I think that the issue, specific to alien life, is that media is conditioned more than most subjects to just snicker and scoff at those stories because in that specific industry that sort of reporting is sorta treated like Mulder was treated in the X Files (with pity / contempt). Most editors just sort of role eyes, etc. And so the issue has never specifically been that the public would not be perceptive, but that the media gatekeepers have no interest in being "that guy" who repeatedly asks the questions because it comes with a stigma...even though Obama is not openly sorta talking around it, and Trump did, and Hillary Clinton's COS was prioritizing figuring out what people knew and having meetings with General McCasland (and Tom Delonge?) on the topic ...

If folks WANTED leads, there are plenty threads there to pull which moat journalist (or more importantly editors) seem uninterested in pulling.

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"otherwise, if one wishes special protection against comet impacts, one would need to develop missions to divert a comet and have them ready to launch on only a few months notice, which would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars. "

They just launched one in November and it only cost a few $325 million. Yeh yeh, asteroid, comet, dirty snowball...it still counts.

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/nasa-launch-first-ever-mission-test-asteroid-deflection-rcna5698

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Right, that was an early test of some of the technology. I would guess that a mission to actually divert a km-size comet or asteroid would run into the hundreds of billions.

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Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

My understanding is that the key is how far out do we know the object threatens Earth. If our object detection is good and it's good and getting better we may have several years or even decades of warning. In that case the amount of force required is vastly lower. Now if someone slashes the detection budget and we have 18 months notice then the sky is the limit.

Another factor is the density and cohesion of comets. We've sent probes to study them so we have some idea of the forces involved in trying to deflect them.

You're tax money at work! Well, if you're an EU resident.

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/rosetta-philae/in-depth/

US taxpayers paid for the astroid mission:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanocallaghan/2020/10/20/nasa-just-landed-on-an-asteroid-and-hopefully-scooped-up-material-for-the-first-time-in-its-history/?sh=72f6651da75f

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Yeah, there's no way of getting around the fact that we would probably have a warning of only months for a comet. Most are too faint to detect in the outer solar system where they spend most of their time.

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My guess is that no one cares about pandemic prevention because people think this is a “once in a century” thing and now that we’ve had it happen, we’re probably safe for the next century or so. We aren’t “due” for a pandemic anymore.

That’s not logical but I think that might be how people think of it.

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Right, like the joke about the statistician who brings a bomb on an airplane because what are the odds of there being TWO bombs on an airplane.

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Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

What drivers me crazy about the film is that a more systemic and thoughtful critique could have really worked!

Just imagine the hilarity of Congress filibustering an earth-saving project. Or the Planetary Defense Coordination Office setting a ridiculously long timeline due to standard operating procedures and hierarchy. Or fights between interest groups trying to shoehorn their niche preferences into the project.

Ironically, these are issues the writers would have been aware of had they taken their own advice and listened to the experts - not on climate specifically, but on why the US government is so bad at getting anything done.

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Not a CPA, but do you write about movies so you can deduct the cost of your ticket on your Schedule C?

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I really think Matt ought to write more about other cities so he can go in person and deduct the trip. Take the whole family!

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i want a DC to LA amtrak sleeper car review.

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You're not subscribed to his unboxing channel?

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I subscribed for a while, but then canceled because all Matt ever unboxes is #########.

Wrong answers only

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Tbh I think you’re not pushing your analysis far enough here. The reason we don’t have a stronger focus on pandemic prevention even while standing in the rubble of the current pandemic’s effects is the same reason that we don’t have any substantive action of any sort being taken on climate change: an electorally significant portion of the population does not believe that either are a problem, and their representatives are representing their views correctly. SARS-CoV-2 was “just a flu”, and anyway a little culling of the population now and then is all to the good. And it’s a viewpoint that thrives quite happily in the face of both liberal _and_ conservative elite disparagement: witness Trump himself getting booed for admitting he got vaccinated.

This also pertains to a particular hobby horse of mine: the weird crossover between certain strains of nominally lefty environmental politics and the nativist far right: I think NaturalNews going hard into the tank for trump in 2015-16 was one of the most significant and underreported moments of that campaign, and we’re still seeing the repercussions of that shift play out. I think that the primary effect of now 40 years of climate activism in the west has been to convince a substantial segment of our populations that we’re already doomed to mass population die-offs and that the most important thing to do is to build as high as wall as possible around ourselves to keep the screaming hordes of the dispossessed out.

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The rise of anti-anti-virus attitudes on the right has been staggering (kind of like the anti-anti-crime attitudes on the left)

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Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

The other issues is that when we have some giant problem and fix it no one notices. Remember Y2K? Big problem, we spend a few $100 billion and fixed it. Remember Acid Rain? Fixed. Remember the Hole in the Ozone Layer? Fixed.

The great flaw in human cognition is that people never get the credit they deserve for things that don't happen. Like this poor guy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

He literally saved the world.

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"He literally saved the world."

You call this saved?!?

But seriously, good point and interesting anecdote. In a similar vein, its hard to say a guy who got a Nobel Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, AND a recent mention on Jeopardy has been overlooked, but Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is less well-known than he ought to be.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Norman-Borlaug

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I highly recommend Charles Mann's book The Wizard and the Prophet for anyone interested in Borlaug and/or the issues raised in this post.

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Your point about NIMBYs is where the climate change metaphor really falls apart, IMO. Climate is basically framed as something that those evil fossil fuel company CEOs could fix if they weren’t being so dastardly, without confronting the fact that they’re rich because we’re all their customers. It’s a problem that will take lifestyle change and sacrifice from all of us, not just a vapid President changing their mind about polls.

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In the prequel, a successful middle-aged journalist donates 5 percent of his substack earnings to comet removal technology.

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This is as old as 'the boy who cried wolf' parable. You can't read the NY Times without being told how every snowstorm, cold spell, drought, warm spell, prairie fire, ant infestation, hurricane, tornado and car wreck on the LIE is due to global warming. No wonder voters have tuned out. Global warming may be a disaster, but it's a slow moving one and telling humanity 'yes but tomorrow is the tipping moment of no return doom' doesn't seems to be catching our attention. Maybe the problem is with the doomsayers who want us to think it's like the comet wiping out earth. That message isn't breaking through, so maybe they should try a new message that will actually make us think this is existential. Meanwhile they're promoting the CTC for more kids. Seems like a mixed message if we're doomed.

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The "having kids is the real problem" enviro-leftists are practically crying out to be canceled from the left, considering that the vast majority of current population growth in the world comes from Africa, while most industrialized nations are just struggling to tread water in population. (I don't actually believe these enviros are subjectively motivated by racism, but seeing them get canceled over that would be ironic and funny.)

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True. Has my neighbor, a moderate non-college Dem thoroughly examined his soul for racism when he says “Let’s have fewer babies so we can all have a rack of ribs on Friday”? Maybe. But he’s still right as far as the numbers go. Or put it another way: more female empowerment means a lighter human footprint and more Wing Nights for everyone, plus a big win for wildlife; anyone who sees white supremacy in that program reminds me of the Red Scare zealots of yesteryear.

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I think the argument would be that because rich world babies contribute so much to climate change, we can’t allow Africa to reach first world status unless Africans reproduce at first world levels. Although there is a good argument for development leading to lower population growth, they don’t want to take that risk.

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It's pretty brazen of MY to use a movie about the existential risk of a comet strike on earth to write about the existential risk of a comet strike on earth. Talk about sneaking your issue preferences onto a popular platform.

It would be great if we took these kinds of threats seriously. But we don't because we're bears of very little brains who don't think about hypothetical matters. Supervolcanoes don't matter because they haven't happened; some guy tried to sneak an amateurish bomb onto a plane in a shampoo bottle and we fixed that with no more liquids on planes forever and ever.

That's stupid, but the list of potential horribles is pretty infinite, and preparing for them seriously would require dedication, funds and some means of making those efforts go on in perpetuity. Wise leaders would still dedicate funds and resources to doing some preparatory things, but those would by necessity be small cost and impose no burdens on the population (and they would also be led by people with no larger ambitions, because they would be career dead ends).

I wish it were not so but it is so and there you go.

(And on the movie itself: it was enjoyable but a failed satire, because it was instead comfort food for our team, who get to laugh and shake our heads ruefully at the idiots on the other side. A real satire would have demolished *everybody*, including the Naomi Wolf types who would be salivating for the clean start the comet would give by putting finis to the white cisheteropatriarchy. And, since the movie is so devoted to science accuracy, a side story about various astronomers waging vicious warfare over who gets credit for finding and naming the comet would have been appropriate.)

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What's weird about the pandemic is that we usually overcorrect to prevent disasters that have already occurred. As per your example, 9/11. We've been warned for at least forty years about the inevitability of a respiratory pandemic, and obviously we didn't prepare enough. But you'd think right now, while it's on the top of our minds, we'd be putting huge systems in place to prevent the next one.

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Climate change (and other long tail risks) would get more traction if the rent weren’t so damn high.

Middle income Americans work unsatisfying jobs to pay for food, shelter, clothing, utilities and streaming videos. It’s not exactly Victorian privation, but only a small proportion of income goes to “having fun” rather than “staying afloat.”. Any additional expense, be it a VAT, carbon taxes or even higher gas and utility prices is an existential threat to having fun. Cell phones and netflix might have to be exchanged for books and board games.

Higher up the income scale, there is enough cushion that higher gas prices or carbon taxes are far less menacing to fun. I suspect Europe is more environmentally conscious because there are better public amenities that can be enjoyed at low or no cost. Anecdotally, falling in love with pickleball has trimmed my economic ambitions. For $1-$2k a year, I can make a lot of friends and have a blast five or six days a week. That is far cheaper than my old hobby, hiking, which requires oodles of transportation and lodging, and it’s close cousin, skiing, which is accessible only to the upper middle class, frugal, highly committed people who live near resorts, and those who work at the resorts.

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My wife desperately wants to teach my kid to ski. My reaction has been along the lines of “you want to give her the ‘gift’ of a hobby that costs thousands each year and may or may not be tenable at all in the NE US in ten years, whereafter the travel-included costs go up to tens of thousands each year?”

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So what you're saying is that comet defense is actually about housing and land use policy? Truly the NIMBYs hate Mother Earth herself.

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EVERYTHING is about housing and land use policy! :)

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My point is more about cheaply available amenities than disposable income. The attorney I share a building with makes a very healthy income. However, he has three kids, feels obligated to pay for their college, doesn’t trust social security to exist when he retires, has to pay for his own insurance, enjoys fancy things and feels that he needs to earn $250k a year to stay afloat.

If one lives in Europe, college snd health care are basically free and there are lots of safe public parks and recreation areas. There’s also a culture of having fun without spending much.

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I've become increasingly upset with the environmental movement's inability to prioritize climate change over other issues. Every single zero-carbon energy source has localized environmental impacts. Dams do harm to rivers, power lines cut down trees, solar farms can impact habitats, wind farms impact birds, nuclear power produces radioactive waste (and an incredibly teeny tiny risk of meltdown, so small as to not worry about). It seems like because many environmental activists grew up in an era when this was what environmentalism was all about (fighting large-scale projects because of their impacts), we're seeing the environmental movement torn between doing what's needed for climate change and still fighting against localized impacts. At some point we have to make a choice what we care about.

The opposition to nuclear is thankfully starting to soften, but it's still really frustrating to see folks pretending that wind and solar alone will get us to a zero- or low-carbon emissions outcome. The intermittency is a real problem and storage will never be good enough to fully deal with it. Even the best storage solutions in existence last for minutes or hours, not days or weeks or months, and progress is extremely slow. Even then, would you want to be that reliant on sources that could be disrupted so easily by freak weather events? Transmission is also a huge problem. The best wind and solar are found really far from population centers. Are we really going to build massive new transmission lines? Not in our current legal framework in which it's nearly impossible to get them approved. Nuclear reactors can instead be built next to existing transmission lines, and they can provide power on demand. Worrying about radioactive waste is like worrying about landfills--neither one is a problem because we have pretty much unlimited space to store our waste forever. Whereas our climate is getting worse and worse at a fast rate. And worrying about nuclear meltdown is like worrying about a plane crash, when thousands and thousands of planes fly every day without incident. Meanwhile coal and oil and gas are like driving a car everyday, with the constant crashes and fatalities so ubiquitous we don't even think about them.

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Jan 5, 2022·edited Jan 5, 2022

This was discussed unto rigor mortis and well beyond the other month, but the economics of nuclear suck wind regardless of politics and storage is already better than you describe.

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I read it as more of a critique of the general inability of the American public and media to deal with significant threats and get caught up in hucksterism and tribal habits. This could apply to almost anything, climate change included.

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The thing I keep thinking about is that I would have put pandemic risk in this category until 2020: "There is a range of often goofy-sounding threats to humanity that don’t track well onto our partisan cleavages or culture war battles other than that addressing them invariably involves some form of concerted action of the sort that conservatives tend to disparage."

However we quickly learned that a pandemic virus is also a culture war issue. If pandemic risk could go from goofy science concern to culture war in a couple of months, I have to assume that most other existential risks would end up following the same activation and division pattern if/when they materialize. Our collective tendency to move directly from ignorance to culture war-ify anything seems like a big barrier to collective action against any emerging risk. I don't have a solution for that, but I've definitely updated my priors since the start of the pandemic.

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Jan 4, 2022·edited Jan 4, 2022

The virus wasn't preordained to be a culture issue. American conservatives did it. In Britain, the Murdoch newspapers carried full page, front page ads telling people to "get boosted now" (as did all other newspapers). Hard right politicians are some of the staunchest supporters of vaccines because they view them as preventing heavier handed government intervention.

The solution is for the current incarnation of the US conservative movement to be defeated over and over until it becomes a sane right wing party like other countries have.

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"The solution is for the current incarnation of the US conservative movement to be defeated over and over until it becomes a sane right wing party like other countries have."

I agree, but the current incarnation of the US left isn't actually able to do that.

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I have not seen polling taking in the 2020-2021, but anecdotally the anti-vax sentiments on the right appears to have taken hold after the election. Trump mentioned the greatness of Operation Warp Speed and the vaccines that would soon be available during the campaign without obvious pushback from supporters. Then when he talked about the vaccines after Biden became POTUS, he was booed (I guess it's possible that his supporters were not excited about vaccines during the campaign but held their tongues). I don't have any memory of Fox running an anti-vax jihad before the election.

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Yea, I don't see anything amiss about this either.

I'd rather we ram a shot every six months down everyone's throats forever and ever than permanent (and ineffectual) mask wearing, careful edging around people in public, financial stability for most households perpetually on the brink, and intermittent "stay at home or be fined/beaten/shot" campaigns.

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The best critique I saw of the film was a response to one of Sirota's publicity drip campaign tweets congratulating themselves for proving that you could make Climate Change movies "popular" ("it's number #1 on the worlds largest streaming platform!") , which (to paraphrase it), just said:

"Remember in the film when they make a movie about the asteroid and smugly assure themselves they have really accomplished something and we, the audience, know that absolutely nothing has changed at all?"

My main thought in hindsight is that, absent the coordinated drip campaign, literally no one was going to assume the movie was about climate change. The handful of friends who i interacted with in regards to the movie all seemed to assume it was about COVID-19 (Climate Change seemed to be far from their mind) or perhaps just a silly movie about a comet, etc.

At the end of the day, I think it illustrates just how awful this brand of Left Wing activism is at messaging and solidifying support for an goal they support...the movie was basically crafted to only appeal or reveal itself to a narrow subset of "insiders" who spent the whole time talking about how "genius" it was that there was an Elon Musk / Joe Biden type character who sold cell phones...

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Oh and speaking of not getting credit for things that don't happen.

The US spends a couple $100 million a year tracking any object that could threaten the Earth. I think we've got upwards of 95% of them identified. NASA even launched a mission to test deflection technology in November:

https://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense/dart

In the most likely case the object will be identified several years out, they will launch a mission to deflect it, and the object will pass harmlessly past Earth. And most people won't know or care. Why? Because we fixed it.

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